Immigration Then and Now

What’s New About
Contemporary Immigration to
the United States?
Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of
Hunter College and Graduate Center, City
University of New York
Main theme
The United States is now in the midst of a massive
immigration that has been changing the nation --- something
that also happened a hundred years ago. In my talk this
evening, I want to explore some basic questions that put the
current immigration to the US in historical perspective.
Two main questions:
(1) Is history repeating itself ? In some ways, the answer is
yes. There are many parallels with the past.
(2) But we are not just witnessing a timeless immigrant saga.
In many ways, today’s immigration to the U.S. differs
profoundly from the past. What is new about U.S. immigration
and the immigrant experience today?
Why is a historical comparison of
“then and now” important?
There’s a popular tendency in the United States to look
back with nostalgia to immigrants in a so-called golden
age of immigration -- to romanticize or glorify the
experience of immigrants in the past. And to see
immigrants today as overwhelmingly different – and
inferior. A historical comparison makes clear that this is
A comparison of past and present helps us appreciate
what is unique about each immigration era and what is
more general to the American migration experience.
Why is a historical comparison of
“then and now” important?
By acquainting us with what has gone
on before, a comparative approach can
inspire a critical awareness of what is
taken for granted in our own time.
Viewing today’s immigration in light of
the past is valuable for immigrants in
the U.S. today – because it brings out
that immigrants before have also
struggled and experienced difficulties
when they came to the US.
Focus of the Talk: Two Great Immigration
Waves of the Past 125 Years
Last great wave to the US: between
1880s and early 1920s
Present wave to the US: began in the
late 1960s and still going strong
Shameless Promotion
Six Parallels with the Past
The United States is not experiencing
large-scale immigration for the first
Early twentieth century America was as
much an immigrant country as it is
Foreign-Born as a Percentage of the U.S.
Second: Work and Immigrants’ Place in
the U.S. Economy
Because many immigrants today arrive with low skill
levels, do not know English, and are new to the
United States, they, like their predecessors a hundred
years ago, often enter the economy at the bottom:
taking low-paid jobs with long hours and unpleasant
working conditions that nobody else wants.
Italians in the past dug ditches and tunnels; today
many Mexicans work in construction (and even more
did before the recession!). Some of the jobs are even
the same -- working in garment sweatshops, for
example, taking care of the gardens and children of
the well-to-do
Third: Where Immigrants Live
Many newcomers to the U.S. today, like those a
century ago, cluster in ethnic residential enclaves,
often sharing homes or apartment buildings with
people from their home communities and giving
many neighborhoods a distinct ethnic flavor.
Reasons: choice and constraint
Also: their low incomes – and recent entry into the
housing market – force many immigrant families
today, as in the past, into crowded and sometimes
substandard living quarters and to rent out space to
their compatriots in order to make ends meet.
Fourth: The question of race in the U.S.
It is often said that a major distinction between
today’s immigrants and those a hundred years ago is
that then they were white Europeans – and today
most are people of color.
But southern and eastern European immigrants a
century ago were not viewed as white in the same
way that people with origins in northern and western
Europe were.
They were seen as inferior whites – as “probationary
whites”(Jacobson), “in-between peoples” (Barrett and
Roediger), or “color insiders” but “racial outsiders”
The question of race
A hundred years ago, a common belief was that
southern Italian and eastern European Jewish
immigrants belonged to inferior “mongrel” races that
were polluting the nation’s Anglo-Saxon or Nordic
Then Vice-President Calvin Coolidge: “America must be
kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics
deteriorate when mixed with other races.”
Madison Grant (patrician founder of the NY Zoological
Society): “America is being swept toward a racial
abyss… the type of American of colonial descent will
become extinct.”
The question of race
Jewish and Italian immigrants were believed to have
distinct biological features, mental abilities, and
innate character traits. They looked different to most
Americans, and were thought to have certain physical
features that set them apart – facial features often
noted, for example, in the case of Jews, and
“swarthy” skin, in the case of Italians.
To refute the stereotype, Dr. Maurice Fishberg, a
professor of medicine at New York University and a
Russian Jewish immigrant himself, classified the
noses of nearly 3000 Jewish men in New York City,
finding that “only 14 percent had the aquiline or
hooked nose commonly labeled as a ‘Jewish’ nose.”
Fifth: Transnational Ties
Transnationalism, or maintaining political,
social, economic, and cultural ties to the
home country, is not a new invention.
Many immigrants to the U.S. in the last great
wave of immigration maintained extensive
transnational ties: they sent money (and
letters) to relatives back home and put away
money to buy land and houses in the home
Transnational Ties
Large numbers of Italians (“birds of passage”)
engaged in circular migration – going back to
their home village seasonally or every few
years, and many immigrants, in a variety of
groups, remained actively involved in the
politics of the homeland.
Some homeland governments – Italy being a
prime example – were also involved with their
citizens in the US, subsidizing organizations to
help them, for example, and facilitating the
flow of remittances homeward.
Sixth: Learning English
A common fear is that today’s immigrants
and their children are not learning English –
and that this is different from the past.
But when it comes to language, the
similarities with the past stand out– and the
fears that immigrants and their children today
will not learn English are unfounded.
Learning English
The standard three-generation model of
linguistic assimilation still holds:
the immigrant generation (arriving as adults)
makes progress but is usually more
comfortable and fluent in the native tongue;
the second generation tends to be bilingual
but speaks English fluently;
and the third generation is, overwhelmingly,
monolingual in English.
Learning English
A recent U.S. study: 88 percent of second-generation Latinos
18 and older spoke English very well (vs. about a quarter of
first-generation Latino immigrants). Although many in the
second generation are also bilingual – this does not hinder
English language fluency.
Once again: by the third generation, English monolingualism
is the dominant pattern today. Among school-aged children
in immigrant families in 2000, about 70 percent of the
Mexican third generation in the U.S. were monolingual in
English, 92 percent of the Asian third generation.
Research shows that most grandchildren of Latino immigrants
don’t speak proper Spanish and can’t even be persuaded to
watch Spanish language television.
The other part of the story: seven
new aspects of immigration today
There are many contrasts between then and now – and
they stand out because the immigrants coming to
the U.S. today are different, because the United
States is a different place – indeed, the world is a
different place!!
Much, in short, is new about the U.S. immigration story
First: Who the immigrants are, or the
nature of immigrant flows
A hundred years ago, the overwhelming majority of
immigrants to the U.S. were from Europe – mainly
from eastern and southern Europe.
Italians were the largest group of new immigrants in
the first two decades of the 20th century, followed by
eastern European Jews.
In 1910, an astounding 87 percent of the nation’s
immigrants were European – in 2010, the figure was
12 percent.
Regions of Origin
In 2010, more than four out of five immigrants were
from Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean (28
percent were from Asia and 53 percent from Latin
Today: the top three groups in the US are Mexicans,
Chinese, and Indians – with Mexicans making up
almost a third (29 percent) of all immigrants in the
Top Ten Source Countries of U.S. Foreign
Born, 2010 (thousands)
El Salvador
South Korea
Dom. Rep.
11, 711
2, 166
1, 780
1, 778
1, 241
1, 214
1, 105
1, 100
Percent of Immigrant Population
Numbers Today
Immigrants today may be a lower percentage of the
U.S. population than in 1910 but there are many
more of them today.
In 1910, there were 13.5 million immigrants in the
U.S. – in 2010, they were a whopping 40 million
The numbers are unprecedented.
Immigrant Population of the U.S. (in
Second: Undocumented Immigrants
A hundred years ago, there were few
restrictions on European immigration so that
hardly any European immigrants were illegal.
Until the 1920s, there were no numerical
limits on European immigration -- no
immigrant visas or special papers that had to
be secured from the United States. (Bear in
mind: specific exclusion laws barred Asians,
in the case of the Chinese as early as 1882.)
Undocumented immigrants
European immigrants came by boat – and
most got through the ports of entry easily
(most famously Ellis Island) since they had
already been screened, mainly for disease, by
steamship companies before being allowed
on the boat.
Only 2 percent of the 12 million immigrants
who landed at Ellis Island were excluded.
Differences Today
Today, if you don’t have authorization by US authorities, you
can’t legally live and work in the US
There are numerical limits on the number of immigrant visas–
and in many countries, a long wait to get them, even if you
have a family member to sponsor you. (Most immigrants are
legally admitted to the US under family reunification provisions
of US immigration law).
Undocumented immigrants
In 2012, a US citizen wanting to sponsor an
unmarried adult child from Mexico had to wait about
20 years before the application would be processed.
Legal permanent residents applying to bring their
immediate family members (spouses and minor
children) could expect to wait about three years,
regardless of country of origin.
The result: many arrive or remain without proper
documents. The latest estimate: 11.5 million
undocumented immigrants in the US in 2011 , 59
percent from Mexico, another 11 percent from El
Salvador and Guatemala.
Third: Social and Economic Backgrounds
of Immigrants
Remarkable diversity of backgrounds today.
Many of today’s immigrants are still poorly educated and lowskilled --- 32 percent of the foreign born 25 and older in 2011 in
the United States lacked a high school diploma -- but
substantial numbers now come with college degrees or more.
In 2011, 27 percent of the foreign born 25 and older in the
United States were college graduates.
Never in the history of U.S. immigration has such a high
proportion arrived with such high educational qualifications.
Fourth: Where Immigrants Live
A hundred years ago, most European immigrants went to the
Northeast and Midwest – in 1920, this is where 80 percent of
the nation’s immigrants lived.
Today: large numbers also go to the Southwest, West, and
South – most notably, California, Texas and Florida.
In 2011: California had the nation’s largest immigrant
population (10.2 million), followed by New York (4.3 million),
Texas (4.2 million), Florida (3.7 million), New Jersey (1.9
Immigration in U.S. States
Fifth: Jobs and the Economy
Given that a substantial minority of today’s
immigrants have college degrees – and some bring
substantial amounts of financial capital – it is not
surprising that many arrive ready and able to find
decent, often high-level jobs in the mainstream
economy. This is another difference from the past.
Also, in the postindustrial, service economy, fewer
immigrants work in factories, more in the service
sector than in the past.
Jobs and the Economy
Legal status wasn’t an issue for European immigrants
a hundred years ago – it is for many immigrants
Having a green card (permanent resident legal
status) is not a recipe for success, but without it an
immigrant has more trouble getting a good job and
making a living wage in the formal economy – and
this has enormous ramifications for their own lives
and for their children’s lives as well.
Sixth: What’s New About Transnationalism
Transnationalism may not be a new
invention, but much is new about
transnationalism today.
With modern technology and
communications, immigrants can maintain
more frequent, immediate, and closer contact
with their home societies than before.
Transnationalism Today
A century ago it took two weeks to get back to Italy; today,
immigrants can hop on a plane. Or pick up the phone to make a
call to hear news from relatives – and be involved in everyday
life in the home community in a fundamentally different way
than in the past. With prepaid phone cards, telephoning is
cheap. And there are new types of communication such as
email, text messages, and Skype.
The case of Jamaica
A growing number of countries of origin allow dual citizenship –
many immigrants can vote in home-country elections even after
becoming American citizens, and a growing number, like
Colombians in New York, are able to do this from the US.
Seventh: Continuing Immigration
In the past, there was a halt in mass immigration to
the US from southern and eastern Europe in the
1920s as a result of legislative restrictions followed
by the Great Depression and World War II – and
mass inflows did not begin again until the 1960s.
The second generation growing up in the 1930s,
1940s and 1950s did so in a context in which there
were hardly any newly-arrived immigrants in their
This is different from today when immigration to the
US has been continuing at high rates – and a halt in
mass inflows, like that in the past, is unlikely.
Continuing Immigration
In 2011: 27 percent of immigrants in the US
came between 1990 and 1999, 36 percent
since 2000 – a total of 63 percent!
Many children of immigrants today grow up in
communities where newcomers (of all ages) –
who have strong ties to the home country,
customs, and languages -- are arriving every
As we look at immigration in 21st century America, it
is helpful to view it with a historical sensibility – to try
and appreciate what is genuinely new about
contemporary immigration as well as the ways that
we’ve been there before.
As the historian David Kennedy has written: “The
only way we can know with certainty as we move
along time’s path that we have come to a new place
is to know something of where we have been.”
Comparing immigration today and in the past dispels
myths about heroes and heroines from a glorious
golden age of immigration in the past.
And it reminds present-day immigrants of what they
have in common with their predecessors – which can
give them a greater sense of being part of America
as a “nation of immigrants” and perhaps also hope
for the future.
As a leader of an immigrant federation in
Brooklyn put it a few years ago in the New
York Times: “We look at the Italian
community, the Jewish community. They
started out like us or even worse off…
Eventually the day will come for us.”
Thank you!!!